Given its ample population of retirees, it's startling to learn Florida ranks dead last in the nation for the number of citizens who spend part of their free time volunteering.
Sarasota, however, appears to be a ray of sunshine in that gloomy statistic, particularly when it comes to the area's vaunted arts organizations.
According to a national study by the nonprofit Americans for the Arts, Sarasota County has nearly twice the number of volunteers to its arts and cultural organizations as most other regions of similar population size across the country.
"It's a fairly unique situation," said Jim Shirley, director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County. "I can't prove it, but I've traveled around and lived many other places and I've never been in a community where you had the level of volunteerism we have here. It's hard to quantify, but Sarasota draws people who are enlightened and want to be involved in life, younger or older."
In 2010, the year the survey was performed, 6,200 volunteers gave an average of nearly 47 hours each to Sarasota's arts and cultural organizations, worth more than $6 million — all numbers above the national average. The only other Florida community of similar population (250,000 to 499,999) that had more volunteers was the city of Miami, whose 24,914 volunteers contributed an average of just 17 hours each.
The level of participation here is critical to sustaining local nonprofits and Southwest Florida's reputation as an arts and cultural mecca, Shirley said.
"I think if you talked to the head of any of our organizations, they'd tell you there is simply not enough manpower or money power to do what they do without their volunteers," he said.
Even for a massive organization like the Ringling Museum, which has the financial backing of the state university system, fewer volunteers would mean mean severe cutbacks in programming, acknowledged Stephen High, the museum's director.
For smaller organizations, with little or no paid staff, it would likely mean extinction.
"For me, it's crucial," said Leymis Bolaños-Wilmott, founder and director of Fuzión Dance Artists, a contemporary dance company that pays its dancers on a per project basis and even then, only according to whatever funding is available.
"We all wear so many hats. Every solid, committed volunteer takes some of the load off me, the board and the dancers."
The perfect storm
Sarasota has several factors that weigh in its favor when it comes to recruiting those crucial unpaid helpers.
According to studies by both the National Endowment for the Arts and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those who attend arts and cultural events are more than twice as likely to volunteer as those who do not. Arts volunteers also tend to be older, better educated and more giving of their time than volunteers with other types of organizations.
So the older residents who have been attracted to Sarasota by its image as a bastion of the arts are motivated to sustain the very organizations that brought them here in the first place.
In the past, that might have meant writing a large check, or attending a pricey gala. But members of the baby boomer generation are interested in a more hands-on approach as they enter retirement, said Susie Bowie, director of The Giving Partner, an online data base and philanthropic portal for nonprofits administered by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.
Today's arts volunteers have often had accomplished professional careers and bring considerable and higher level skills to the table. They want more involvement, not less, and are often willing to make a larger commitment of time and energy.
"Our community has a very sophisticated volunteer base, especially when it comes to leadership positions," said said Bowie. "We have this whole segment of recent retirees who are ready to stay active and put their for-profit skills into practice."
Board members, in particular, now want to invest their brain power and social capital toward making a tangible difference.
"The days of sitting in meetings and listening to committee reports are over," Bowie said. "The board member of today wants to take part in meaningful discussions that shape the direction of the organization for the future."
Putting experience to work
Drew Deininger, whose career before settling in Sarasota three years ago involved directing services for the international airport in Newark, N.J., is one example.
Deininger has volunteered for the Sarasota Film Festival since 2010 and recently he began working with Fuzión as well. Both nonprofits match his criteria for giving his time — "People who are really committed, have something to say artistically and are decent folks" — and are, he believes, a good match for his talents and experience.
"Empowering an organization with my analytical skills is a major benefit I can bring," said Deininger, who is logistics coordinator for the film festival and is consolidating a database for Fuzión. "Maybe my skills are not the most exciting on the planet, but applied in a nonprofit environment, they can be a great help. And I don't see somebody else jumping up to do this kind of stuff."
Allowing volunteers to participate in a way that best suits their own goals is crucial to sustaining their involvement, Bowie said. So local arts organizations need to pay attention to the changing nature of the "Millennial" generation, whose volunteering tends to be more social and episodic.
"Younger people want to do it their way and they are more attracted to helping friends or working with a group of their peers on something they believe in," Bowie says. "It's the cause that's important to them, not the individual nonprofit, and that's going to make it more difficult for organizations to retain them."
Still, she believes the commitment to giving back is a value integrally interwoven into the Sarasota community and will endure even as the volunteer force evolves.
"There are three things you ask when you meet someone here: Where do you work, what's your family and where are you involved?" she said. "You are so affiliated with a passion in this community that it's almost the third leg of your identity."
Local Arts Volunteers
No. of volunteers Organization Hours annual Per donor Value
700 / Players Theatre / 60,000 / 85 /$1,344,000
600 / The Ringling /60,000 / 100 / $1,344,000
550 / Florida Studio Theatre /11,000 /25 / $243,540
325 / Sarasota Film Festival /6,000 /19 /$132,840
300 / Sarasota Opera / 32,280 /18 / $714,679
100 / Key Chorale / 7,500 /75 / $166,050
100 / Art Center Sarasota/ 3,000 / 30 / $66,420
96 / Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe/ 2,307 / 24 / $51,077
50 / Hermitage Retreat /250 / 5 / $5,535
Source: Figures supplied by individual organizations. Value based on $22.14 per hour standard set by independentsector.org.
Want to find the best place to offer your time and talent? Try:
Search engine run by Gulf Coast Community Foundation that matches interested volunteers with available positions
Matches individuals and businesses with organizations, provides training, monitors teen service credits, organizes volunteer activities and events, assists with disaster recovery efforts.